Friends suggested I get a Nook, an iPad, a Samsung… but the point of this exercise was to experience using a Kindle, currently the most popular such reader[...]
But my real reason for getting a Kindle: I’ve seen many, many friends, family, and colleagues buy a Kindle and fall in love with it; I wanted the chance to do the same.
The Kindle, however easy it is to read on, is a crippled Android tablet, optimized to use the Kindle software. The interface is simpler than a regular Android machine, and you don’t have access to the Android Market. So you’re locked into Amazon’s look-and-feel decisions.
What really made up my mind was this: On the Kindle Fire, you can’t organize your books, like you can on a “real” Kindle. I quickly realized that I was already using an Android tablet with the Kindle app, so I might as well spend the extra money and get a Samsung Galaxy Tab, to do away with Amazon’s limitations.
Returning the Fire at Best Buy wasn’t a problem. As soon as I got the new tablet home, I turned it on and was instantly confused by the home screen.
What is Android?
Here’s the most important thing for a new user to understand about Android: Unlike a desktop computer, Android is centered on apps, not files.
Many years ago, I had a Palm Pilot. I was, I think, expecting the Galaxy Tab to be a little bit like a big Palm Pilot, which had billed itself as a “window” to the files in your computer. While you can sync an Android device with your computer if you like, there’s really not much call for it.
If you want to read novels on an e-reader with no fuss, get a Kindle or a Nook. Non-fiction or comic books? Get a Nook Color or a Kindle Fire, or an iPad.
If you like customizing your computer and staying in touch and managing online content, then the Kindle Fire will feel like you’re wearing a straitjacket–most of Amazon’s customizations can’t be changed or removed. (I understand the Nook Color is more easily customized than the Fire, but it still has limitations.) But the simple fact that Android can be customized that much actually says quite a bit about it: It’s a very adaptable OS that manufacturers can do pretty much anything to. And when they leave things relatively open, it leaves a lot of power to tinker in the hands of their users.
Android is a cloud-oriented OS. You use it to access your data in the cloud–Gmail, Facebook, Twitter. You can also sync onboard storage with services like Dropbox, Google Documents, and–importantly for this article–e-book services like Kindle. While you can use an Android tablet or phone to write an email or a status update (and I often do), not many people will write an essay or a novel on a touchscreen tablet. (There are many on-screen keyboarding systems for you to choose from on the Android Market, and some of them work quite well. But none will enable typing at the speed of a hardware keyboard.)
Android devices are great for consuming content and uploading photos, audio, and video–with text commentary and maybe GPS metadata.
Twitter and Chat? Tablets are where they shine.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab
I bought the seven inch version, even though the next size up isn’t much more expensive. This one is the same size as a Kindle Fire, and I can fit it in my jacket pocket.
Let’s have a look at that home screen now:
(You’re seeing the tablet screens with my customizations. It’s a little different than it looked when I unpacked it, but the basic interface concepts are the same.)
The home screen is a kind of launch pad only, it’s not where your apps live, but it’s where you’ll start them running, or switch to them.
Android is Google’s answer to the iPhone and the iPad. It’s an OS designed for smartphones and tablets. The idea of the home screen is to present you with the apps and information you’re most likely to need, and you can put whatever you like on it. What you’re seeing on that screenshot is a combination of apps (Kindle, Gmail, Browser, and so on) as well as what Google calls “Widgets”–this one has three, a clock, the weather, and a tiny sunrise/sunset widget I downloaded. (I bike a lot, and I like to know when I’m likely to need lights and reflective gear.)
The next thing to understand about the home screen is that there isn’t just one of them. You can access five home screens by swiping left or right on the touch-sensitive LCD. Put another way: Imagine your device’s screen is a window onto a home screen bigger than the device’s screen. Stuff you use less often can go on the outer screens.
You may be thinking: “This is all interesting, and I can see that this is a useful gadget. There are apps for social networking sites, some websites have apps (like WordPress and Wikipedia), and there’s a decent web browser. But how does it work as an e-reader?” (If you’re thinking all that, then thank you very much; that saves me from writing several paragraphs.) The answer is: very well. I’d say, it’s not quite as good as a dedicated e-reader, but much better than a computer screen.
Let’s open up the Kindle app:
(The banding you’re seeing is a function of the screenshot, it’s not on the tablet itself.)
If you’ve spent any time with the PC/Mac Kindle sortware, or with a real Kindle, this’ll look pretty familiar. With this app running, you have, well, a Kindle. It’s just that it’s a Kindle without the amazing battery life. The pages turn the same way as on a Kindle Fire or a Touch, and the books sync with Amazon (so you can pick up reading your books from any device). You still can’t put your books into folders, though.
But there’s one huge advantage: I also have the Google Books software and Barnes and Noble Nook software on this, so it’s like having several readers in one. I’ve read a few books on it, and it’s nearly the same to me than reading on any other e-reader–I find that black-and-white e-ink readers are slightly easier to read on for a long time. Color readers? They burn through batteries faster, and if reading on a computer screen tires your eyes, so will this.
The simple fact that I can read books from Kindle, Nook, Sony, Google–from any e-book retailer with an Android app–was the deciding factor in buying the Galaxy Tab. Since my interest in e-readers is professional in nature–I work on books that’ll be read electronically more often than on paper–I consider this the best kind of e-reader for me to have.
The Galaxy Tab tries to do a lot, and it isn’t a perfect solution to much of it. As a GPS, it’s mediocre–tablets with cell data plans will do a better job–and it’s certainly not a word processor. The camera is of mediocre-to-decent camphone quality, although it does make for a good Skype client. Battery life is short, and the included charger is a proprietary cable; if I ever lose it, Samsung will–no doubt–charge me a lot of money to replace. And the nature of Android means that your upgrades happen at the manufacturer’s convenience: They determine how and if to apply Google’s updates, after stapling their own customizations on top of Android.
On the other hand, Android is fast, and you can customize it as much as you like, mostly. It’s a pretty powerful OS. Having a fairly powerful tablet computer in your pocket or bag without the weight of a laptop is pretty nice.
Neil Fein is currently addicted to playing Scrabble and Words with Friends on his Android tablet. When he has time in between games, he attends to his work as a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit.
He’s also the guitarist in the band Baroque & Hungry, who are performing in Somerset, New Jersey in a couple of weeks; he rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when the mood strikes him.